January/ February 2014 Dial-up Degrees

How a low-quality online college is helping poor students in Haiti and beyond.

By Daniel Luzer

Download, learn up: Students in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, travel to shared computer labs around the city to take basic online courses.

The Metropolitan Industrial Park outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contains forty-seven nearly identical tin buildings, each the size of an airplane hangar. Most house offices, factories, or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but one is home to Centre de Formation Technique et Professionnelle, or Haiti Tec, a training center where about a thousand students attend daily sessions to improve their job skills.

One day last spring, a group of about thirty of those students, all professionally dressed and mostly men, gathered in a low-ceilinged, windowless room to watch a video and PowerPoint presentation about a new, all-online college: the University of the People. The president and founder, Shai Reshef, explained that students could enroll at the University of the People but take classes at different locations nearby, potentially even right there at Haiti Tec. And the best part? They could earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, all for free.

Reshef’s twenty-minute presentation felt a little like a sales pitch, as might be expected from someone who made his fortune selling education technology to colleges and universities worldwide, but his underlying message was earnest. Reshef, an Israeli-born entrepreneur, launched the University of the People—or UoPeople, as it’s called—in 2009 as the world’s first open-access, nonprofit, all-online college designed specifically to serve poor students in developing countries. UoPeople, he told me, was his chance to “give back.”
Based on the radical idea that most poor students don’t need—and can’t afford—a traditional college education, UoPeople does not try to emulate the infrastructure of traditional institutions. Instead, it provides the lowest-cost, barest-bones degree program possible and, in turn, charges its students little or nothing to attend.

By many measures, UoPeople is already a major success. Since its launch four years ago, it has attracted both accolades and grant money from some of the biggest players in the development and philanthropy worlds, including the JW & HM Goodman Family Foundation, Google Grants, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Intel Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Passport Capital Foundation, and the United Nations (UN). Those grants help to underwrite UoPeople’s 1,500 students, who hail from 136 countries, including Nigeria, Mexico, and Indonesia. Most of those students pay no tuition for classes, contributing only about $100 to take end-of-course exams. An associate’s degree ends up costing students about $2,000 total, while a bachelor’s is roughly twice that. In Haiti, where the program is subsidized in full by philanthropic organizations including the UN, UNESCO, and the Clinton Global Initiative, a degree costs nothing at all.

In the past couple of years the international development community has showered UoPeople with praise. In 2012, a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also funds UoPeople, described it as “part of an emerging set of programs and institutions that is challenging the status quo and effectively meeting non-traditional student needs by leveraging innovative pedagogical and business practices and providing affordable, quality paths to post-secondary credentials.”

That same year, the academic journal Educational Technology & Society praised the new university for using “promising web 2.0 tools with integrated versioning control, project management, notification and communications tools that are designed to enhance the technical support of student-student interaction.” There is a sense, in other words, among those who work in education and development, that by harnessing advanced technology and reinventing education delivery models, UoPeople has the potential to revolutionize secondary education abroad.

The truth is somewhat less spectacular than all that. While UoPeople is indeed a success, its use of technology is very limited (arguably, its most advanced tool is the thumb drive), and it stops somewhat short of reinventing the way in which education is delivered (its model is similar to that of an old-fashioned correspondence course). But UoPeople is indeed revolutionary in a different sort of way. By entirely ignoring—even undermining—orthodox expectations of what a good post-secondary education should be, UoPeople provides a vital service to students in developing countries. It’s not high tech. It’s not even very good. But UoPeople is exactly what poor students in the developing world actually want.

To say that UoPeople offers a no-frills education is a bit of an understatement. There are no textbooks, no office hours, no laboratories or research libraries, and students, upon enrolling, are given just two choices in their course of study. They can earn an associate or bachelor of science degree in either business administration or computer science. That’s it. (Those are growing fields in which people are most likely to get jobs, Reshef explains.)

Based in Pasadena, California, with a public relations staff in New York and an IT department in the West Bank, UoPeople maintains no bricks-and-mortar campuses. It has no classrooms, and employs no full-time faculty. It relies instead on a vast grassroots network of volunteers and partner organizations in the countries where it operates and is therefore able to run on a grand total of about $6 million a year—a fraction of the cost of most universities of its size.

For access to classroom space and computers, Uo-People partners with local schools and community centers, like Haiti Tec, which donate the space, electricity, and computers that UoPeople students use for free. This is no small boon—Haiti Tec costs roughly $30,000 a month to run, according to its technical adviser, Michaelle Saint-Natus—but it comes with some disadvantages. Unlike most online colleges operating in the U.S., UoPeople cannot assume that its students have regular access to a fast Internet connection. As it is, some 25 percent of UoPeople students rely on dial-up connections, and even Internet cafés and full-blown computer labs, like those at Haiti Tec, suffer from electrical outages and Internet interruptions.

As a result, UoPeople students are encouraged to download classes onto a USB thumb drive, study offline, and contribute online when they can. And while American online colleges sometimes require students to participate in live video conferences and Skype sessions, UoPeople’s “class discussions” are often limited to static, online message boards. Students react to a question prompted by a reading and contribute ideas over the course of a week, making it about as academically rigorous as the Disqus comment board on a Businessweek.com article.

Top of the class: High-achieving English-speaking job applicants in Haiti say that the only thing that sets them apart in the oversaturated job market is a college degree—any college degree.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


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